HC Deb 08 July 1968 vol 768 cc44-8

Mr. Edward M. Taylor (by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Transport whether he will make a statement on the settlement of the railways dispute.

3.46 p.m.

The Minister of Transport (Mr. Richard Marsh)

As the House will by now be aware, agreement was reached between the British Railways Board and the N.U.R. last Friday evening as a result of which the Union agreed to instruct its workers to resume normal working at once. The terms of the agreement are already well known to the House. Later that evening a similar agreement was reached with a negotiating Committee of the A.S.L.E.F., and this was ratified by the Executive Committee of the A.S.L.E.F. on Saturday.

I welcome this settlement, which brings to an end a fortnight in which the travelling public, and particularly commuters in the South-East, were put to a great deal of inconvenience and in some cases hardship.

The Government have throughout been concerned that any settlement should conform to three principles:

  1. (1) The Board and the unions must reach agreement between themselves without Government intervention.
  2. (2) There would be no financial help from the Government to finance any settlement. Indeed, there could be no such help because, under the terms of the Transport Bill, the Board will be "on its own" from the beginning of 1969.
  3. (3) Any settlement must be in accordance with the productivity prices and incomes policy.
The settlement reached accords with these principles.

I should like to emphasise three points on this settlement.

  1. (1) The agreement includes a specific instruction from the B.R.B. and the N.U.R. to their negotiators to secure implementation of the pay and 45 efficiency agreements by 2nd September.
  2. (2) The agreement also provides that, both immediately and after the con- elusion of the pay and emciency agreements, bonus and mileage payments will be contained at existing levels for existing performance.
  3. (3) The Board tells me that the immediate extra cost of the settlement as compared with its offer of 22nd June is estimated to be about £170,000 in this year. In effect, what has been done is to redistribute the money which was already on offer to the unions. But nothing in the Penzance agreements conflicts with the self-financing basis of the main productivity deal, of which they will form part.
I am particularly pleased that the Board and the unions were able to reach agreement themselves without Government intervention, and I hope and believe that this settlement creates conditions in which we can all look to a brighter future for industrial relations on the railways.

Mr. Taylor

What estimate has been made of the cost of the dispute? Which of the four criteria on incomes policy justifies this award? Does the Minister agree that the concession of an interim award to all railwaymen after 14 days of rail chaos, when it was refused to them beforehand as a matter of principle, will serve only to encourage other unions to think that the only way in which they will get a wage increase is to go in for go-slows, industrial disputes, or strikes?

Mr. Marsh

With the greatest respect, the hon. Gentleman should draft his supplementary question after he has heard the Answer. It is not true to say that this is a new move. What has happened here is that the original offer has been redistributed. Some of the money which would have gone to the lower-paid workers has gone to the higher-paid workers. There is no difference in principle at all. The total cost is about £170,000.

Mr. Peter Walker

Is the Minister aware that the flat 3 per cent. increase has been given without any specific productivity agreements, which have still to be settled? Is he aware that on 24th June, Sir Henry Johnson, Chairman of the Railways Board, when asked whether he would give a general increase on account of later productivity agreements, said: No, no! I am sorry but we have been up that avenue before. There will be no further pay rises until the unions"—

Mr. Speaker

Order. There can be no quotations in supplementary questions.

Mr. Walker

Sir Henry said that there would be no further increases until productivity agreements had been made. Will the Minister say whether or not, if the productivity agreements are not made by 2nd September, the flat increase will remain?

Mr. Marsh

Perhaps I can repeat this point again. The Railways Staff National Tribunal made an award which allowed for an interim payment on account of a productivity agreement being subsequently made. What has happened is that virtually the same amount of money is now available as a result of the negotiations as was available before. It is not true to say that this is a new principle.

As to the productivity agreement, very large sums of money indeed—up 1o 24s. a week—are available to a large number of these men, which cannot be paid out until such time as a productivity agreement is signed. All the evidence at present points to the unions being very anxious to conclude a productivity agreement.

Mr. Murray

The fact that an agreement was reached over the weekend will give every commuter some satisfaction today, but will my right hon. Friend say whether he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity will be keeping a very close watch on this situation so that we do not have a recurrence after 2nd September?

Mr. Marsh

I can only say that what will happen after 2nd September will be very big improvements in British Railways because of major changes in practices. The Government made it clear throughout the dispute that they would back the Railways Board in standing firm on the basis that it could not pay out money which it did not have.

Mr. George Brown

Will my right hon. Friend say whether what we thought we heard down here below the Gangway he actually said, which was that the justification is that the money in total is about the same and a settlement has been arrived at by taking what the lower-paid men would have got and giving it to the higher-paid men? If he really says that, how does he expect us to go on defending the incomes policy?

Mr. Marsh

I am sure that my right hon. Friend will be the first to support the incomes policy, which he invented. The agreement provides for very large increases, of up to 10½ per cent.—24s. a week—for the lower-paid workers, and the interim agreement will be absorbed into the subsequent agreement. What has happened is the redistribution of the interim award which will subsequently be subsumed by the main agreement, and the main agreement provides for very big distinctions between lower-paid and higher-paid workers.

Mr. George Brown

That is no answer.

Sir G. Nabarro

Because the very large increases to which the right hon. Gentleman refers depend absolutely on the acceptance of these productivity agreements, and they can only be successful if the swollen railway staffs are much reduced, will he not be absolutely candid with the House and say that he expects that under these productivity agreements there will be a substantial reduction in the number of railwaymen?

Mr. Marsh

All Ministers are always candid with the House, and it would not be for me to breach the tradition. The productivity agreements range over a wide number of different fields. In most cases they are directed towards encouraging the more efficient use of labour. The most significant thing that the Board has already got out of this settlement is the acceptance of bonus and mileage payments being related to basic rates.

Mr. J. T. Price

Is the Minister aware that the greatest personal contribution he can make to industrial peace on the railways in future is to keep quiet, and let the trade unions and the employers get on with the job?

Mr. Marsh

The last time I made a statement in the House I did not invite the Question that was put down. I expressed the Government's view that they intended to leave the negotiations for the Railways Board, and subsequently there were criticisms from various quarters to the effect that the Government should have been doing something about it. My hon. Friend is totally right. This is a matter to be negotiated between the Railways Board and the unions, and this is what happened.

Mr. Goodhart

As the Minister of Transport acknowledged that commuters in the Southern Region have had to put up with a 50 per cent. reduction in service for a fortnight, will he now recommend that the Board should extend the life of existing season tickets for a few days so as to give some compensation to those travellers who suffered?

Mr. Marsh

It is not for me to enter on this matter, except to say that, while commuters were caused an incredible amount of inconvenience, what emerged from this dispute was that they all eventually got to work.

Mr. Philip Noel-Baker

Will the Minister do his best to ensure that the Railways Board will have sufficient manpower to carry its present traffics, and greatly to increase them in the early future?

Mr. Marsh

I certainly hope that the House will give every possible support to British Railways to ensure that it is able to expand its capacity. One can only say that the present dispute has done a great deal of damage to the railway industry and to the future of railwaymen, as well as to commuters.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

Order. The Chancellor of the Exchequer.

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